Field Notes: In Zambia, Meeting Some of the Bravest Women I’ve Ever Met

Women waiting for surgery in Zambia

By Kristi Eaton, Fistula Foundation Writer in Residence

I’ve long been passionate about covering the issues facing women and girls. As a journalist and communications specialist, I’ve written about menstrual hygiene and child marriage in India, birth registration in Indonesia and women in prison in the U.S.

So when the opportunity came up to document the work of the Fistula Foundation in Zambia, I jumped at the chance to learn more about this devastating injury.

One statistic stood out to me: 1 million women are waiting for treatment.

The Fistula Foundation is making inroads on that number. During the last year in Zambia, the foundation helped more than 230 women become dry. This might seem like a small percentage, but for the women getting healed, it is life-changing.

 

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I am the inaugural writer in residence for The Fistula Foundation (@fistula_foundation) and will spend three weeks traveling throughout Zambia documenting the effects of fistula on women. Fistula is a hole in the birth canal that happens during prolonged labor. It leads to leaky urine and feces and social isolation for the women. It’s mostly seen in developing countries. Follow along as I document the works the Fistula Foundation is doing! After a whirlwind trip from Oklahoma to Lusaka, the capital, I took an eight-hour ride to Mpika today. The Fistula Foundation is holding surgery this week. Here are some patients pre-surgery at Chilonga Mission Hospital. Asked if they were OK with getting their picture taken, they responded, “Yes, people need to see how we are suffering.” Six patients had surgery today and they will continue through Saturday. Each of the women receive a package that has wipes, soap, pads, toothbrush and toothpaste, a traditional chilenge wrap, a pair of panties and other materials. More than 40 women will receive treatment during the surgical outreach. #fightfistula . . . #fistula #fistulafoundation #zambia #mpika #lusaka #women #womenshealth

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Take Doris, for instance. She’s one of the women I met during surgical outreach at Chilonga Mission Hospital in Mpika. Doris lived with fistula for more than 20 years, her husband abandoned her and she, like many sufferers, isolated herself. She was unable to sit with family and friends because of the smell.

Now she has a new opportunity at life, one not determined by leaking urine. She told me that she doesn’t know if she should dance or sing she’s so excited about the new opportunities the surgery affords her.

The women at the surgical outreach are some of the bravest women I’ve met. Facing a devastating injury and then a surgery to repair it, they remained upbeat, tellling stories to each other, braiding one another’s hair, taking care of their children and singing.

Asked if they were OK with their picture being taken, they replied, “Yes, we want people to see how we’ve suffered.”

Later, I headed to the remote district of Mafinga in Muchinga Province. The only way to get to Mafinga is to take a bumpy dirt road. It’s located about six and a half hours from Chilonga, the nearest treatment hospital. There’s no electricity nor piped water in Mafinga. The villages also lie far away from each other, making community mobilization and outreach difficult for the program officer and Community Health Volunteers. Still, they are overcoming the obstacles and educating the public about obstetric fistula.

The Community Health Volunteers have been given bicycles to cover greater distances, but it’s still not enough to reach some of the most remotest of areas.

I attended two community outreach meetings and both were well-attended. Community members opened up the event with dancing and singing. Then Community Health Volunteers explained what fistula is, how it develops and how the Fistula Foundation is able to help treat women. The floor was then opened for questions before a drama performance took place, which, again, showcased the effects of fistula and what the foundation can do for treatment.

The villages were very welcoming to us – one even cooked us a lunchtime meal – and eager to learn about the condition and mobilize the community.

We also met with survivors of fistula who utilized the Fistula Foundation’s program to seek help. They were all immensely grateful to the program staff, hugging and thanking them. Husbands and mothers even came out to show their appreciation.

So far, the trip has been very enlightening and I’ve learned a lot about the foundation’s work. I’ll continue to document the work I see throughout Zambia. Please consider following me on Twitter or Instagram to see my latests posts from the road! 

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